Meet the second irrational habit in a series about several.
There is a low-value, highly draining habit that distracts from what matters most in organizations, even though it may feel helpful (or at worst neutral). It is so common as to seem unremarkable: talking crap. Sneak dissing. Complaining without acting.
Here’s an example of how this damages outcomes.
Say an exec team hires a strategist to help execute a new direction and project. That strategist is a new person from the outside, with different tools and expertise that may not always be immediately clear. This situation can feel awkward and uncomfortable even if it supports outcomes everyone recognizes as important.
The exec team attends a day-long offsite. The strategist facilitates it and, at the end of the day, says: “Here are four questions I’d like each of you to answer, to ensure we hit our key outcomes. Please come directly to me with any questions, comments, challenges. I’ll pick up the phone, answer texts and emails ASAP.”
No one says anything yet almost everyone is thinking something. The CFO glances at the list of four questions and thinks, “Maybe I’ll send an email tonight,” then doesn’t. The next morning, the CFO wakes up fussed, preoccupied with “I didn’t like that thing.” This thought does not grow into action, however, like a text or email to the strategist.
Across town, by contrast, the COO wakes up relieved. She thinks, “I feel like we moved forward yesterday,” and is in a good mood at the morning coffee 1:1 with the CFO. Then the CFO says, “I didn’t like that thing at the offsite yesterday. It made me feel all-this-kind of way. How about you?”
Reader, that is crowdsourcing discontent. Why does the CFO do this? Why do any of us? Why doesn’t the CFO simply go to the strategist and ask, “Hey, can I get 15 minutes with you to talk about the offsite yesterday?”
Why does it matter? Because the CFO reduced outcomes with little to no upside. The COO is distracted by information she did not need anyway, while the person who most needs to hear it in order to improve outcomes—the strategist/facilitator—remains unaware.
How Language Encourages Discontent
First, a quick clarification of terms: Calling out structural or systemic injustices, discriminatory or abusive labor practices, and so on in order to ignite change is a powerful strategy, and is not the sort of discontent we mean here. Strategically organizing and rallying people is powerful and needed. We’re talking about personal, sometimes petty preferences that are neither thoughtful nor deliberate.
Before we unpack internal motivations, we can look to organizational culture and language. Do these predispose or set people up to crowdsource discontent? Is our culture feeling centric instead of outcome centric? (See the first post in this series about centering feelings over outcomes.) A question such as “What did you like/dislike about the offsite?” is feeling centric, when we actually want to get out of personal preferences and into external outcomes.
The exec team strategic offsite does not exist because someone wants an excuse for The Killers to perform or to have a free stay at the Four Seasons. Offsites exist (or should) to facilitate and support specific outcomes, and that is the basis on which we need to evaluate them. So often, however, our language does not reflect that. Too many organizations ask people what they liked or didn’t like, and not what they will do with what they heard.
To get out of feelings and into shared outcomes, use language that is specific, tangible, helpful, and constructive, like: “Our offsite had three goals:
1) to connect deeply with one other person;
2) to find or learn one new thing you can use going forward; and
3) to identify one specific way you and your team will contribute to XYZ Strategy. How did the offsite land on these points?”
And: “If the offsite fell short on one or more of these goals, what specific solutions do you suggest?”
Our Culture Crowdsources Discontent
Beyond our organizations, let’s be aware that our current culture and platforms actively encourage, thrive on, and profit from the habit of crowdsourcing discontent. Think about the NextDoor website, for example. Neighbors complain about the city, the roads, everything under the sun, yet almost no one is either the source of the problem or the person who can help fix it. Random neighbors are not the 311 trash pick-up line, or the Department of Building Inspection, or the public utilities repair contact.
Are we more attached to sharing our discontent than we are to fixing it? Or at least more in the habit of doing so?
Unpack and Notice Your Motivations
We can shift into new habits. Here are a few questions to ponder:
- Do you use your team to crowdsource discontent? Do you foment discord without doing anything to fix it? Notice.
- Be honest: Do you want your discontent addressed and solved, or are you attached to feeling it? Is some part of your identity—the skeptic, the frugal finance person, the misfit—attached to or represented by those feelings? Are you truly in favor of the outcome you outwardly claim to support?
- Do you share your feelings because you believe they need external validation? How can you accept your own feelings as valid and move on to addressing them directly, with the people who can help the most? You do not need someone else to agree with you in order to express concern. You can express concern directly to another person.
- Do you distract people from what matters most in order to soothe your own, temporary discomfort? By spreading discontent around in our workplaces, we distract people from other things that are more important. It’s not just a punk-ass move to talk about people, rather than to them: It’s a waste of time. It gets nothing done. And for some folks, that may be the point.
What can we do instead?
- Notice and pause. Focus on the outcome desired. Decide if your preference is significant AND if the person to whom you are speaking is also the best person to change or address it.
- If you keep crowdsourcing discontent, ask why you’re attached to this habit. What really drives spreading vs. fixing behavior?>
- Why do you need to validate your concern with other people before going to someone directly? Do you need to continue to do this?
- Be more protective of team time. Every conversation is a candidate for either distraction or acceleration. Treat them that way.
Have you made a shift from talking about people to going directly to them? How have you gotten out of discontent for its own sake and into outcomes? I’d love to hear more.